BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
As the polar vortex whirled over the arts and crafts estate buried deep in the woods outside Lake Forest, a group of almost-strangers raised their wine glasses in the flickering candlelight, not knowing what the dark and stormy night would bring.
Rather than the opening lines of an Agatha Christie or a Jack London knock-off, this was the scene last week for several successful writers and artists completing prestigious residencies at Ragdale, the year-round art colony housed in the magnificent former summer manor house of Howard Van Doren Shaw.
For over 40 years, in all seasons, creators have worked from studios across the wooded property located near the center of Lake Forest. In summer, dancers perform in the open-air theater known as the Ring, inspired by the Villa Gori in Siena, which Shaw visited in 1907. Throughout the year, visitors come for lectures and other programs, often admiring Sylvia Shaw Judson’s stature of the “bird girl,” one of four replicas, including the one appearing on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber, a Two Spirit, Alutiiq/Black/Choctaw poet, playwright, and educator best known for her socially-engaged texts and images exploring identity and the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, describes the group at Ragdale, staff and cohort alike, as “generous and inspiring,” adding about her experience: “I truly enjoyed my time in the snowy silence of Ragdale. I thought about the Potowatomi, the Anishinaabe, the very old tree who reached a branch into the earth and out again.”
We spoke with three other members of this cohort from around the country, authors Rowena Alegria (Denver), Patricia Reis (Portland, Maine), and Clifford Gerstang (Staunton, Virginia) as they completed their residencies February 1.
Rowena Alegria shared her polar vortex perspective:
“At Ragdale, in weeks of silence and snow, with my only responsibility to creation, I not only find the words, I enter the story. I escape this existence of keyboard and honeyed tea and, for example, become a powerful but panicked alcoholic father as he braves the frigid waters off the Oregon Coast because his young son and a boy he loves as one are caught in a riptide. The cold of the polar vortex resides in the icy terror of those pages.”
A former journalist, she is now chief storyteller for the City and County of Denver. A recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction, she is writing a novel that plays with form and the history of the Southwest.
We asked Rowena, What does a real winter’s experience do to help hone her focus as a writer?
“I come from Denver, which has a reputation for snow but experiences less and less of it. Every time flakes fall, I give thanks, offer tobacco, and pray that the latest dusting won’t be our last. I welcome blizzards as opportunities to turn inside, light a fire and eat soup, nap, and read and write, and then, once Tonatiuh (the Mexica name for the sun) gives the all-clear, throw snowballs or sculpt men with branch arms and chunk smiles of crooked granite. I chose Ragdale in January in hopes of finding inspiration beneath that blessing of snow.
“At home, working full time in service of the amazing Mayor Michael B. Hancock, raising children and managing a household leave me mere moments to lose myself in the cosmos of my novel. I have trained myself to write each night and on weekends, with the hum of the TV and simmering responsibilities in the background. We do what we must do.”
“At 53, I am an emerging novelist, meaning I have yet to publish a novel, but some pretty wonderful people have gotten behind my work. Among them is Ramona Ausubel, a member of the Ragdale Curatorial Board and a granddaughter of the family whose home became the Ragdale haven for artists. I discovered the phenomenon that is this place. I applied and was awarded an artist’s dream: the freedom to concern myself solely and exclusively with the pursuit of creation for the grand sum total of twenty-five glorious days.
“I couldn’t have come, however, were it not for dear friends and family who believed enough in me to have fed, transported, and cared for my children while I created. My debt to all is enormous and eternal. Ragdale is my first residency. The bar has been set all the way to an eclipsing Super Blood Wolf Moon.”
Clifford Garstang, whose book The Shaman of Turtle Valley will be out soon, said the polar vortex demanded that he truly use his imagination: “I am in the middle of work on a novel that I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Ironically, given the polar vortex, it’s set in Singapore, which is near the equator, and I have to keep reminding myself how hot it is in the story.
He added, “Anything that stimulates the senses can be useful in trying to evoke a particular time, place, or experience. This extreme cold might be something I’ll write about at some point.”
We asked the Virginia resident how he adjusted to the sub-zero temperatures:
“The cold and snow is not something I’m accustomed to anymore, so the weather has helped keep me at my desk. On the other hand, I’ve taken some beautiful photographs of the snow and ice. I love to walk and, in fact, use the walking time to help solve problems in writing—difficult plot points, for example—and the prairie behind the Ragdale House is excellent for that. With the snow and cold, that’s been a challenge. On the other hand, it’s great for keeping at my desk, focused on the text of my work.”
Clifford, who won the Library of Virginia Award for Fiction for What the Zhang Boys Know, had his first Ragdale residency in 2014.
“Artists I met at other residencies told me about Ragdale, and the setting—historic houses with the prairie behind—was ideal,” he shares. “I went to Northwestern and worked in the Loop for a couple of years after law school, and I was keen to come back.”
This is Patricia Reis’s third residency at Ragdale, and she has experienced the colony in three seasons: “In April, 2013, I chose Ragdale for a number of reasons that still apply: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and still have family there. I was working on my memoir, Motherlines, and needed my feet planted on home ground.”
“I arrived at Ragdale in early January,” she says, “this time with my 300-page manuscript and 15 pages of editor’s notes and am thrilled to say I have completed a final edited draft of Prairie Fever. It is now agent-ready. If I were home, this would have taken months to accomplish. Deep bows of gratitude to all at Ragdale.”
“There are many possibilities open for writer residencies. Once I experienced Ragdale, I have never applied to any other. Coming to Ragdale feels like a homecoming, sweet and familiar.”
“Each has been special,” she continued. “In spring I witnessed the controlled burn that Ragdale does on the back prairie fields, in fall, I took many walks on the prairie paths, and this winter, I snowshoed!”
Whatever the season, Patricia’s schedule doesn’t deviate:
“The schedule I create is monastic: up at 7, coffee, write in my journal, then work on the manuscript. Get dressed. Go to the kitchen to make a smoothie, bring it back, and work some more. In the mid-afternoon, maybe walk into town, or snowshoe on the prairie. Occasional visits with others if they are in the kitchen or out and about. Before dinner, I visit with Chef Linda in the kitchen, enjoy our community at dinner, then back to my room to read until 10, and lights off. Dream!”
When asked what the quiet of the snowy surroundings did for her work, she replied:
“There is a quality of quiet and beauty in this landscape covered in fresh snow. The palette is simple and uncomplicated—the stark trees, black against the white, are like vertical lines on a page. The air has a clarity that refreshes the mind. All are conducive to deep thought and contemplation. In indigenous cultures, winter is the traditional time for communal dinners, providing a delightful and necessary balance to a sequestered day. The cold and early darkness lend themselves to dropping into the story world.
“I am old enough to remember ‘real’ winters in Madison, Wisconsin, skating on Lake Mendota. I have lived in Portland, Maine, since 1986. I love winters there: cross-country skiing, 10-day winter snowshoe camping expeditions, dogsled trips. I have written about these trips and produced a DVD, The Arctic Refuge Sutra. So winter feeds my writer’s soul.”
We spoke with our authors about dinner in Ragdale’s beautiful central dining room. Clifford described these sit-downs beautifully, saying: “Dinner is the only time residents come together, and it’s something I really treasure about the residency—hearing what everyone is working on, how it’s going, challenges they face. Creating art is a solitary occupation, but this sharing helps build community. It doesn’t hurt that the food Chef Linda prepares is excellent, which helps the communal mood.”
“Conviviality abounds. And Linda provides an amazing spread that somehow manages to meet everyone’s needs,” Patricia added. “Conversations are sometimes with individuals, sometimes with the whole table joining in. You can pick whom you sit near—no assigned seating! Or, if you are really working, you can get a plate saved for you. I notice that doesn’t happen often. We all seem to want to gather at this hour.”
Rowena summed up the blessing of a unique Ragdale winter’s experience, sharing: “Following fabulous food and conversation with an enviable cohort of artists that included fiction and nonfiction writers, a painter, an architect, an interdisciplinary artist, and a trumpet player, I returned to the cocoon of my study to write and read until the book dropped onto my nose. In the morning, up with Tonatiuh, I went in search of coffee to fuel my quest again. On the twenty-third day of my twenty-five, I surpassed my goal of drafting one hundred pages of the novel and completing the middle section of the book. Ometeotl! Amen and Hallelujah!”
For more information on the Ragdale Foundation, visit ragdale.org.